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  • 17

    Science Sheds Light on Pictish Puzzle
    History; Posted on: 2008-02-15 17:07:42 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
    Laser technology preserves Pictish carvings

    by Norma Jackson

    New, advanced laser technology has been utilized to help to preserve the Saint Vigeans Stones, a collection of esoteric carvings left by the Picts, the pre-Celtic people who gave their name to the British Isles.

    Experts and specialist staff working for the Historic Scotland agency have taken the Stones from their museum in Arbroath to Edinburgh, using the lasers to remove accumulated debris and sharpening details that had been obscured for earlier researchers. The restoration work is the first conservation effort since the 1960s and may reveal new clues about the lives and beliefs of the Picts.

    The Saint Vigeans Stones are a set of 38, dating from the early Christian period. Among them are the Drosten Stone, a cross slab that, like only one other stone, carries inscriptions in a non-Ogham alphabet. (Ogham was the alphabet of the Celtic people). The words on the Drosten Stone appear in Latin and Pictish and suggest 842 AD as the date of origin.

    Pictish symbol stones are the main remnant of these people, who were known in historical times to occupy parts of northern England, Ulster and Scotland. They were called Pictoi ("painted people") by the Romans, who took the name from the Greeks, a reference to the elaborate tattoos the Picts wore.

    As a separate people, the Picts persisted well into the Dark Ages, and married into the leading Scottish families. They warred periodically against "P Celtic" groups of "Strathclyde Welsh," who were related to today's Welsh people and who had kingdoms in Scotland. The Picts also fought the Romans, and, later, the Saxons. The P Celts called the Picts "Prydyn," which the Romans Latinized into the basis of the word "Britain." There is debate about what kind of language the Picts spoke, with some claiming it was linked with Celtic languages, and others claiming it was an Old European tongue, perhaps related to pre-Indo-European languages like Basque. Pictish words may continue to exist in place names like Aberdeen.

    The main enemies of the Picts in Scotland were the "Scotti," "Q Celtic" invaders from Eire who gave their name to modern Scotland. The name "Caledonia," a folk name for Scotland, comes from the Caledonii, a Pictish federation.

    The Picts may have been a cultural survival of Stone Age people, the "Old Europeans" whose genes form the main basis of the genetic makeup of today's Britons.

    The restored Saint Vigeans Stones have already given clues about Pictish life. They seem to indicate that the area supported both a church and a monastery. Since monasteries were centers for the intelligentsia and attracted royal patronage, the area would have been a very important cultural, political and ecclesiastical center and the stones probably played some kind of ceremonial role. The Picts are believed to have been evangelized by Saint Palladius (Pelagius), who had been the first Bishop of Ireland, and whose "Pelagian" theology was considered heretical*. None other than Saint Patrick himself, who succeeded Palladius as Bishop, denounced the "apostate Picts." After the Picts had embraced orthodoxy, their geographic placement later put them in the midst of religious debate again. While they were shepherded by the Celtic Church, headquartered at Iona, the Picts did not have the same degree of monastic adherence as Celtic Christians did, and their monasteries were not as self sufficient, enjoying royal patronage instead. In 717, the Pictish King Nechtan mac Der-Ilei sided with Rome in the debate between the Celtic church and the Catholics which had been largely won by Rome at the Synod of Whitby in 664, when the Saxon Christians embraced Roman views about the ecclesiastical calendar and other details of church practice. King Nechtan expelled the Celtic Christians, orienting the Picts towards their southern neighbors.

    The physical appearance of the Picts is thought to persist in the dark hair, pale skin, light eyes, "lantern jaws" and "long heads" of many of the Ulsterfolk. The current Catholic/Protestant conflict in Ulster may be a continuation of historical struggles between the Celts of Eire and the Ulstermen which began long before Christ was born. Such an ethnic conflict is recorded in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the central tale in the Ulster Cycle dating from late 11th/early 12th century AD preserving the oral bardic legend of a much earlier Iron Age war between the Ulstermen, led by their hero Cúchulainn and the army of Irish Queen Maeve.

    Like many historical figures, such as Old King Cole, Queen Maeve persisted in the folk memory, but as Queen Mab, a fairy. Shakespeare mentions her in Romeo and Juliet, and she appears in Ben Jonson's "The Entertainment at Althorp" and Michael Drayton's "Nymphidia." The radical nationalist poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had a taste for antiquarian folklore, penned "Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem," his first long poem, which he published himself in 1813. Shelley was an advocate of a Celtic revival, which renewed interest in British origins and helped to form part of the basis of much of modern nationalism in the UK.

    The tattooing of the Picts, Celts and Vikings has enjoyed a large cultural revival, and symbols from these peoples are often worn as an atavistic identification with a legacy once lost.

    Arbroath, home of the Saint Vigeans Stones museum, is also an important site for Scottish nationalism. In 1320, Scottish aristocrats signed what is often cited as the first declaration of independence in the world, which influenced the signers of America's Declaration, many of whom were of Scots and Ulsterfolk descent, in 1776. Called The Declaration of Arbroath, it was a letter sent to Pope John XXII, and is remarkable as a declaration of Scottish nationhood. The idea of nationhood based on language, tradition and culture was foreign to the Middle Ages, and would not be fully realized as an active norm until the French Revolution.

    * A version of Pelagian views lies at the heart of Methodism and the Holiness movement: "Man is basically perfectable, and through living a saintly life may become essentially sinless." This thinking was behind various blue laws, prohibitionism, abolitionism and even eugenics in the United States, and is still seen in many "Christian conservative" efforts against pornography and in favor of public displays of faith, election of Christian politicians and enforced teaching of "intelligent design" in schools. It is also seen in efforts of the "religious left," such as the "sanctuary movement." Outsiders often see the campaigns from both sides as self righteous excess and religious fanaticism.
    News Source: Norma Jackson


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